Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Meet the new director of the Institute for Health Disparities Research and the man joining HCAP’s efforts to improve San Antonio’s health

Meet the new director of the Institute for Health Disparities Research and the man joining HCAP’s efforts to improve San Antonio’s health

NOVEMBER 22, 2022 — Demography and sociology professor and Director of the Institute for Health Disparities Research (IHDR) Fernando Riosmena joined UTSA this fall. He comes to UTSA after working for many years at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he served as the director of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Institute of Behavioral Science, associate director of the University of Colorado Population Center, and as an associate professor of geography and sociology and faculty mentor at the Latino Health Certificate in the Colorado School of Public Health.

Riosmena’s work as a professor in the College for Health, Community and Policy (HCAP) and his research for the IHDR focuses on the intersection of immigration and health, a unique crossroads to study at a time when record-setting numbers of migrants are entering the U.S. He chose UTSA because he admires how the university works with the community and produces research that improves people’s lives.

“I hope I can contribute to and honor this tradition with my own work,” Riosmena said. “I also am very excited to be in a Hispanic Serving Institution and in a city with so much history as San Antonio.”

“My main goal is to make the institute a great intellectual home for folks that research health disparities, not only related to race-ethnic differences.”

This is your first semester at UTSA. Tell us a little about your background.

I did my doctorate degree in demography at the University of Pennsylvania in beautiful Philadelphia. There, I obtained training to better measure, identify and document patterns of people's actions—like migrating to a new country—and the many important experiences that affect them, such as illnesses. I also gained knowledge and tools to analyze the fundamental causes or roots of these population dynamics and health conditions.

My dissertation mainly focused on understanding contemporary patterns of the dynamics of migration from Mexico to the U.S.—and, for many, many people, back to Mexico. My dissertation allowed me to launch a whole research agenda to contribute to a better understanding of international and internal migration patterns focused on Mexican migration.

After my doctorate degree I spent a year at the World Population Program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). Founded during the Cold War Era as a place where "east" and "west" come together to better understand problems of global significance, the institute allowed me to interact with scholars from many parts of the world and to learn more about global issues.  

After my stint at IIASA, I spent a year as a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Demography and Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I started researching health disparities, trying to better understand Hispanic health, particularly immigrants from Mexico. I launched a series of projects to disentangle the ways in which Mexican immigrants’ health changes through the immigration experience. Since then, I have expanded my research to better understand chronic adult health and aging and race-ethnic disparities, with a focus on the Mexican-origin population in the U.S.

You’re also the new director of the Institute for Health Disparities Research. What goals do you have for the institute? 

My main goal is to make the institute a great intellectual home for folks that research health disparities, not only related to race-ethnic differences but also other disparities like gender, sexual orientation and disability. I hope the IHDR can be a place where folks at UTSA, community organizations and government agencies can come together, collaborate and share their research and solutions to issues, such as promoting more equitable access to reproductive health and mitigating the inequitable impacts of infectious and chronic diseases.

What kind of research is going on in the institute right now? Can you tell us about a project you’re working on? 

A major project going on at the institute is a health promotion project that aims at providing mostly low-income San Antonian middle-schoolers with tools to handle the various pressures and stressors that tend to affect their lives, opportunities and health-related behaviors. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at the Department of Health and Human Services funded the project, which is directed by Drs. Eric Shattuck and Xiaohe Xu.

In addition, an ongoing project of mine in collaboration with folks at six other institutions compares the healthy and unhealthy ways people of Mexican origin in the U.S. age compared to the aging of people in Mexico. The National Institute on Aging is funding this project. I am working on understanding how positive and negative experiences people underwent in childhood and young adulthood negatively impact physical, cognitive and mental health, as well as mortality.

We are testing whether these experiences affect different types of health and populations in similar ways. We’re also looking at whether the accumulation of people’s experiences compounds in a way that each additional negative event produces a worse impact than the previous one.

We are taking a close look at how the social supports that people have access to and whether living in a cohesive community may help reduce the impacts of negative exposures. I hope the results of this research can guide some ways to promote healthy aging for all adults by facilitating support and cohesion, should these factors prove important to enhance aging.

Your research focuses on the intersection of immigration and health. Why is that an important area? 

Understanding the type of health factors immigrants arrive with and how their chronic, cognitive and mental health evolves throughout the immigration experience is important because it provides an assessment of health disparities within different race-ethnic group with recent immigration histories.

For example, immigrants in many developed nations tend to be in better health than expected given that many of these folks came from relatively poor or developing countries. They exhibit fairly good health, most notably in terms of mortality, many cardiovascular conditions and some cancers. This is true for Hispanics in the U.S.—particularly immigrants from Mexico—and that is why some people call this phenomenon the “Hispanic Health Paradox.”

My research shows that this “immigrant health advantage” is produced by a combination of factors. First, immigrants arrive with fairly healthy profiles in several indicators associated with better cardiovascular health later in life, particularly smoking behavior. Older immigrants from Mexico living in the U.S. may also exhibit lower mortality in part because a small but nontrivial share of Mexican immigrants eventually migrate back to Mexico in old age and do so in worse health than those who stay in the U.S. They might be seeking care from family and friends back in Mexico or cheaper healthcare, if they were undocumented.

In some cases, I suspect that folks might want to spend their last few years or months back in their home country, a pattern illustrated in this very traditional Mexican song (see translated lyrics here). Lastly, Mexican immigrants and, to some extent, Mexican-Americans, exhibit relatively favorable cardiovascular health because of protective factors in their U.S. communities.

This is a line of research that needs more to really understand why and how this is taking place, but the idea is that these folks are somewhat sheltered from stress by living in tight-knit communities and among family. This protection seems to wear off the longer immigrants live in the U.S. For example, my work has shown that Latin American immigrants who live in the U.S. for more than 15 years tend to live four to six years fewer than those who arrived more recently. My project is examining whether immigrants age faster and die sooner because they experience multiple negative experiences throughout their lives, each one leaving a worse effect.

Explore the degree programs and other research centers within the UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy.

What surprising findings have arisen from your research? 

My research on what drives people to migrate suggests that drought-like conditions, which are expected to become more common in many parts of Mexico with climate change, are often associated with lower Mexico-U.S. migration relative to periods with less severe weather or no drought. This is surprising. One would expect that drought and the economic and social dislocations that it produces may push people out of their communities, but this is not the case overall. I am continuing to work on this research to better understand these patterns amid rising climatic variability associated with climate change.

Brooke Crum

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University of Texas at San Antonio receives ‘transformational’ $40M gift

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